It may be a contradiction, but it's something devoutly desired among the dessert-loving set: a treat that's light, luscious and low in calories.
Can it be done? Can a sweetheart of a dish really dispense flavor while shedding calories?
Of course it can -- and you don't even have to revise your taste buds' expectations.
"If you want to have dessert, you want to," said cookbook author Ruth Glick, explaining the appeal of low-fat treats. Ms. Glick, of Columbia, is co-author, with Nancy Baggett, of Ellicott City, of "100% Pleasure: From Appetizers to Desserts, the Low-Fat Cookbook for People Who Love to Eat" (Rodale Press, $27.95). "If you know what you're doing, it's possible to produce [low-fat desserts] that taste as good as standard recipes."
Ms. Baggett noted that her husband's problems with high cholesterol led her to experiment with low-fat recipes. "He likes dessert. It's not reasonable to say, 'You can't have it anymore.' "
There's clearly a demand for low-fat cookbooks; hardly a day goes by without a new title hitting the bookstores.
But buyers should beware. There are some terrible recipes out there, recipes that result in dishes with none of the flavor, texture or eye appeal of the items they purport to replace. There are cakes that taste like cardboard, brownies heavy as lead, cookies so sweet they make your teeth ache.
"Low-fat dessert" is something of a contradiction, because fat plays such a large and varied role in baked goods. It adds moistness and lightness, and enhances flavor. Taking fat out alters the chemistry of the dish. Replacing fat with ingredients that will fill all of fat's roles is the tricky part of slicing fat out of standard recipes.
As a result, the most successful low-fat desserts will not be no-fat, and, rest assured, they will not use non-food ingredients such as butter substitutes or sugar substitutes.
"It helps to start with a really good recipe that you know works and take a little bit of the fat out," Ms. Glick said.
"You have to have realistic objectives," Ms. Baggett said. "It's probably perfectly realistic to reduce fat in a recipe you like. But it's probably not possible to take all the fat out."
Fat moistens and lubricates other ingredients and traps air in food, leading to the tenderness and lightness people love in baked goods, said California food writer Marie Oser, author of "Luscious Low Fat Desserts" (Chariot Publishing Inc., 1994, $11.95). To replace fat, she uses fruit purees, such as applesauce or prune puree -- "Fruit pectins work the same way to entrap air" -- and a little more leavening. She also likes a product called light silken tofu, available at health-food stores, which can replace eggs and dairy products in recipes. She uses fruit-juice concentrates, such as frozen white grape juice, to replace fat.
Ms. Baggett said that when fat is removed from a dish, "You have to compensate, because things will be less flavorful."
If the recipe is for a spice cookie or spice cake, she increases the amount of spices. "A little orange zest or lemon zest helps bring up the flavor" in some dishes, as does extra vanilla. When she reduces the amount of nuts in a recipe, she toasts the remainder. "They will have a much better flavor."
Other techniques Ms. Baggett advocates are using lower-gluten flours such as cake flour. Gluten is a desirable element in bread, because it makes the dough elastic, but it's terrible in cakes, because it makes the batter tough. Normally the fat in a recipe helps coat the flour and keep the long, stringy gluten molecules from forming. When you reduce the fat, you need to take other steps to keep the gluten from forming. The less gluten there is in the flour to begin with, the lighter the batter will be (which is why even some standard recipes call for cake flour). Ms. Baggett also suggest stirring the batter as little as possible, because stirring develops the gluten.
Low-fat or no-fat sour cream or yogurt can substitute for some of the sour cream in a recipe, Ms. Baggett said, but she warns that substituting for all of the sour cream can cause the recipe to be too acid, and that can keep cakes and other such desserts from rising.
Her goal, she said, is to create a dish that, "when I set it on the table, I don't have to say, 'This is low fat.' I consider that an apology."
Removing and replacing fat are not all there is to adjusting a recipe, however. "In the same way you pay attention to what you take away, you pay attention to what you're leaving in," said Alice Medrich, whose new cookbook, "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts" (Warner Books, $35) was nominated for a Julia Child Cookbook Award for 1994.
For instance, she said, fat tends to mask sweetness, so when you remove fat from a recipe, you may also have to reduce the sugar, or the dish will be too sweet.
She also suggests removing some, but not all, of the egg yolks; and unless there's a large number of eggs called for, not replacing the yolks with whites, because the whites have a binding effect that can make things heavy.
By the same token, she doesn't recommend substituting all the chocolate in a recipe with cocoa powder, because the cocoa butter in chocolate adds a richness that can't be replaced.
Ms. Medrich, who opened the first of what would be a seven-store group of upscale dessert shops called Cocolat in San Francisco in 1976, thinks fat reduction is the wave of the future in the dessert world. "As soon as serious pastry chefs begin to work on this, there's going to be enormous change.
"I know there are certain things I'm never going to give up," she said. "But I don't think it's all or nothing any more. What we want is something that seems indulgent, with rich flavors, something put together with a sense of artistry. To say you can't do that with less fat than usual is like saying you can't go to the moon."
Here are some recipes for low-fat desserts. The first is from Alice Medrich's "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts." You need to make the cake one day before serving.
The New Chocolate Decadence
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
1 whole egg
1 egg, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch process cocoa
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup low-fat (1 percent) milk
1 1/4 cups or more raspberry sauce (recipe follows)
Enlightened Whipped Cream (optional) (recipe follows)
Position the rack in the lower third of oven and heat to 350 degrees. Spray the sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with a solid bottom (1 1/2 to 2 inches deep) with vegetable oil spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. Put a kettle of water on to boil for Step 4.
Place the chocolate in a large mixing bowl. Combine 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk in a small bowl with the vanilla. Place the two egg whites in a medium bowl with the cream of tartar. Set all three bowls aside.
Combine the cocoa, flour and 2/3 cup sugar in a 1- to 1 1/2 -quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in enough of the milk (about half) to form a smooth paste. Mix in the remaining milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heat-proof paddle to prevent burning (especially around the bottom edges), until the mixture begins to simmer. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, for 1 1/2 minutes. Pour the hot mixture immediately over the chopped chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Whisk in egg and vanilla mixture. Set aside.
Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating at high speed until stiff but not dry. Fold a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in remaining egg whites. Scrape mixture into the lined cake pan and smooth the top. Set the cake pan into an oven-proof baking dish or skillet, at least 2 inches deep and 2 inches wider than the pan. Pour enough boiling water into the baking dish to come about one-third to halfway up the sides of the cake pan. Bake for exactly 30 minutes. The surface of the torte will spring back when very gently pressed but it will still be quite gooey inside. Remove the cake pan and water pan from the oven. Remove the cake pan from the water and cool completely on a rack. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight before serving. (Dessert may be refrigerated for up to two days and frozen for up to two months.)
To serve: Unmold by sliding a thin knife or metal spatula around the sides of the pan to release the torte. Place a piece of wax paper on top of torte. Invert a plate on top of the wax paper and invert the torte onto the plate. Remove pan and peel away the paper liner. Turn torte right ride up again and remove wax paper. Cut into wedges with a sharp thin knife. Dip the knife in hot water and wipe it dry between each slice. Or cut with dental floss, as you would cut a moist cheesecake. Serve each slice topped with about 2 tablespoons of raspberry sauce and a dollop of Enlightened Whipped Cream, if desired.
To make raspberry sauce, thaw and drain two 10- or 12-ounce packages of frozen raspberries, reserving juice. Puree and strain to remove seeds. Thin with reserved juice, if needed.
Add sugar to taste if needed.
Enlightened Whipped Cream
Makes about 2 cups
1/16 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 egg white
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring 1 inch of water to simmer in a large skillet. Combine cream of tartar and 1 teaspoon water in a 4- to 6-cup stainless steel bowl. Whisk in the egg white and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Place instant-read thermometer in a mug of very hot water. Set bowl in skillet. Stir mixture briskly and constantly with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom often to avoid scrambling the egg white. After 45 seconds, remove bowl from skillet. Quickly insert thermometer, tilting bowl to cover stem by at least 2 inches. If less than 160 degrees, rinse thermometer in skillet and return to mug. Replace bowl in skillet. Stir as before until temperature reaches 160 degrees when bowl is removed. Beat on high speed until cool and stiff. Set aside.
Whip heavy cream with the vanilla until it holds soft peaks but is not too stiff. Fold meringue into cream. Cover and chill until needed.
The next recipe is from "100% Pleasure: From Appetizers to Desserts, the Low-Fat Cookbook for People Who Love to Eat," by Nancy Baggett and Ruth Glick.
1 3/4 cups all-purpose or unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup nonfat sour cream
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup liquid egg substitute
3 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
To prepare the cake: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon. Stir to mix well.
In a large bowl, combine the sour cream, sugar, egg substitute, oil and vanilla. Stir vigorously until well-blended. Stir in the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a rubber spatula.
To prepare the topping: In a small cup, stir together the sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the batter. Bake the cake on the center oven rack for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes.
The next recipe is from "Luscious Low-Fat Desserts," by Marie Oser. (The book is available at some health-food stores, or by calling Chariot Publishing at  628-8244. It costs $11.95 plus $1.50 for shipping and handling.)
Fudgy Chocolate Brownies
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup prune butter
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8-inch square baking pan.
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Set aside.
Cream prune butter and brown sugar in a large bowl.
Add egg white to prune mixture. Blend in buttermilk and vanilla.
Add dry ingredients to liquid ingredients and mix to form batter. Fold in walnuts.
Spread into pan and bake on upper rack of oven until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan. Cut and serve.
The last recipe is from "Cook It Light Desserts," by Jeanne Jones (Macmillan, $32.95).
1/2 cup warm water
L 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (check expiration date on label)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup fruit-only strawberry jam
3 ounces ( 3/4 cup) part-skim mozzarella cheese, grated
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh fruit or unsweetened frozen fruit, thawed, such as strawberries, peaches or blueberries
Place the warm water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the top and stir to combine. Set aside until foamy, about 5 minutes.
Combine the remaining sugar, the flour and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the oil, vanilla, and yeast mixture and mix until smooth. Remove dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place dough in a bowl sprayed with a nonstick vegetable spray. Turn dough ball in the bowl so that top is coated with the spray and cover with a wet towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Punch the dough down and return it to the floured surface. Knead for two minutes and place it back in the sprayed bowl. Allow to rest for 20 minutes. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Roll dough out into a 12-inch circle and place it either on a nonstick pizza pan or one sprayed with nonstick vegetable spray. Top dough with the strawberry jam, spreading it evenly over the top, but leaving a half-inch border around the edges. Sprinkle cheese evenly over the jam. Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and arrange the chopped fruit decoratively over the top. Return to the oven and bake until crust is golden brown around the edges, an additional 5 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before cutting into 8 pie-shaped wedges.